I’ve been doing a deep dive into 80s music lately.
I’m shocked, SHOCKED! I hear you say, not bothering to hide your eyeroll. But this is different, honest! I mean, sure, I’ve been listening to some of my old mixtapes and radio tapes, primarily because of a few writing projects I’m working on, but instead of doing the usual dive into records that have a bit of a long history to them, I’m playing around with records I remember seeing in the bins back in the day that have kind of been forgotten.
Not the “forgotten” bands that were really one-hit-wonders, or “obscure” bands that actually get a lot of airplay on certain genre stations. (And on the other side of the spectrum, I’m not yet at the “outsider” musicians that are just a bit too weird and impenetrable for my current tastes. I’m getting there, though.) I’m talking about the ones that I distinctly remember hearing on college radio and seeing their videos on 120 Minutes.
I’m talking about bands like the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience…
…or Gaye Bykers On Acid…
…or Fetchin Bones…
The funny thing is that many of these bands were the ones where I could never find their records, or never got around to buying them for budgeting reasons, or that I didn’t want to chance it if I didn’t exactly like it. I’m coming across a lot of them and checking out their grainy ripped-from-videotape music videos on YouTube. A lot of them are bands where I’d said I’d check them out sooner or later because I’d been hyperfocused on other obsessions…and I’m now realizing that I’ve finally come to the “later” part of that equation.
Some of these bands have stood the test of time, or are definitely a time capsule of a specific style. Some of them have not aged well at all (there’s one comic-punk band I used to like, but now sound like those one-joke pastiches you’d hear on those “irreverent” (read: tasteless bro humor) Morning Drive radio shows). They’re the bands that haven’t had as much of the Old Wave Renaissance play on satellite radio, but they’re the bands music nerds like me will remember.
What am I getting out of this? Well, aside from expanding my soundtracks and playlists, they’re filling some much-neglected holes in my personal history of listening to college radio. And as I’d hoped and expected, they’re also bringing back some memories I’d long forgotten. They’re putting the music history (and my own history) in a much richer context, that 80s college radio wasn’t just about The Cure and Depeche Mode and Wire and REM, but about the smaller bands and scenes that popped up. The music from different parts of the country — or the globe — that had a small but sizeable fanbase of their own. The music that may have somehow made its way onto major labels, but for the most part felt right at home on the independents.
And let me tell you, I’ve been having a hell of a fun time with it all!
I mentioned over at Welcome to Bridgetown that I find myself once again returning to the 80s (surprise surprise), via an old story I started my senior year in high school and attempted to revive numerous times over the ensuing decades. This is the story that went through so many different titles, versions and mutations that it has its own report binder here in the file department of Spare Oom.
And here I am, half-seriously coming back to it. Again.
I mean, this is the same story that also inspired my much more recent nonfic book idea that shares the name of this blog, Walk in Silence. The college rock era of the late 80s will always be near and dear to my heart for many reasons.
So why bring up this old story again, you ask? To answer that, I’d need to explain why it failed so many times in the past, and it’s called roman à clef. Each time I resurrected it, I made the mistake of wanting to write it as a self-insert piece of fiction, and therein lies the problem: my life back then wasn’t nearly as exciting as I often make it out to be. A lot of silliness and a lot of gloominess and everything in between, but not enough to make it an excitable read. So what’s different now? Well, thirty years on I’ve learned a thing or two about how to write fiction and realized roman à clef is not what was needed here. I knew what I wanted to write, but real life self-inserting wasn’t the way to go.
I’m not taking this project too seriously at the moment, as I’m already focusing on a few other things, but I’m letting myself devote an hour or two a day for it anyway, making notes and revisiting mixtapes and looking at discographies and chronologies. I’m also resurrecting a writing style I haven’t used since those same 80s days: using music to inspire and influence certain scenes, Michael Mann style. The difference here is that I’m not leaning heavy on memory here. I’m taking ideas from the songs I loved and expanding on what images and thoughts they inspire and evoke in me. Sure, there’ll be a few self-inserts in there — there always are in my books — but it won’t be as obvious this time out. And I’m making an expanded mixtape that’ll have both the obvious (say, “Under the Milky Way”) and the deep cut (such as the below Love Tractor song). That, of course, is the most fun part of this project so far.
I have no deadline for this particular story, but I am looking forward to spending more time on it if and when I can!
Well before the band was a not-entirely-hilarious throwaway joke in one of the Austin Powers movies, The Alan Parsons Project — essentially Abbey Road studio boffin Parsons, vocalist Eric Woolfson and a revolving door of session musicians, some of them former members of Pilot — had a solid string of radio hits between the mid-70s to the late 80s. And they were one of my favorite bands of my youth.
I’d discovered them in late 1980 when their album The Turn of a Friendly Card was released, along with the one-two punch of two fantastic singles, “Games People Play” and “Time”. The first centered around a synth loop that got stuck in your head in a good way and had that driving beat and melody kind of similar to Christopher Cross’ “Ride Like the Wind” from earlier that year.
The latter was a gorgeous ballad that must have been played at numerous school dances and senior proms at the time, and was a favorite of mine for years:
I owned an ‘oldies reissue’ single containing both songs and was most likely one of the first non-Beatles-related records I ever owned as a kid. But it wasn’t until 1982 when my older sibling gave me a dubbed copy of their then-new album Eye in the Sky, which received a lot of airplay on many rock stations. It’s a light and poppy record that fits in well with the commercial charts of the time, even with its occasional foray into weird prog nerdiness.
The next few albums may not have had the same chart success as their previous records, considering the tendency for their sound to remain firmly in the Adult Contemporary genre, but they still contained some fantastic singles both light and serious. The ELO-like “Don’t Answer Me” from Ammonia Avenue was a chart hit with a humorous animated video that gave a nod to old comic books and pulp novels:
Parsons and band alum Andrew Powell also recorded a fascinating soundtrack for the Matthew Broderick/Michelle Pfeiffer/Rutger Hauer film Ladyhawke in 1985, and you can definitely hear the APP influence.
I actually liked 1985’s Stereotomy as it had a really interesting and spacious mix and was far more prog-rock than their previous records. It didn’t do too well on the charts, but the title song was catchy as hell and had a surprisingly creative video directed by visual artist Zbigniew Rybczyński.
Their last record as the Project, Gaudi, was an odd album centered around the architect, and went over the heads of a lot of people, but it did give them one last great single, “Standing on Higher Ground”.
Parsons and Woolfson went their separate ways soon after. Parsons occasionally released solo records while also returning to production work, including at Abbey Road. Woolfson released two solo records and then work solely in musical theater, and passed away in 2009. Parsons and many of the APP alums still pop up live occasionally!
The Alan Parsons Project may have been a corny joke in a Mike Myers film, but they wrote wonderfully creative pop records, and still have a strong fanbase. Their music still pops up in the most interesting of places — for instance, “Eye in the Sky” has been sampled by electronic group The Avalanches with their new song “Interstellar Love” with Leon Bridges, which dropped just this morning, thus the inspiration for this entry!
NOTE: I’ve been listening to their album Big Bang nonstop lately, partly because I love it so but partly because it’s inspiring some ideas on a new story idea that’s gestating over in my daily words. Thought I’d share a post from six(!!) years ago about one of my favorite 80s bands, with updates and edits. Enjoy!
We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It!!, aka Fuzzbox here in the States, was a cute and punky quartet out of Birmingham UK, and one of my first music crushes when I started listening to alternative rock. They’d been brought to my attention right about the same time as Sigue Sigue Sputnik in the glossy music mag Star Hits, and upon seeing their crazy-colored and spritzed hair and punky Oxfam chic, I was completely hooked–which in all honesty wasn’t really hard, considering it didn’t take much to rebel in a small town like mine. They made me realize punk wasn’t just about rebelling against society, like American punk had suggested — it was also about doing your own thing, however bizarre it might be, and not giving a shit about what other people thought about it.
Fuzzbox was initially together only for a short time, releasing just two albums and a handful of singles before going their separate ways, but they were just so damn fun to listen to that it didn’t matter.
Fuzzbox started sometime in 1985 with four friends who’d decided to start a band. And like any punk band worth their salt at the time, mastering your instrument wasn’t exactly high on the list of priorities. Consisting of Vickie Perks (aka Vix) on vocals, Tina O’Neill on drums and sax, and sisters Maggie (aka Magz–vocals, keys and guitars) and Jo Dunne (bass, guitars and keys), they immediately jumped in on the occasional open mike night at the local bars and learned their chops onstage. It’s said Maggie was the creator of the band name, announcing that they did in fact have a fuzz distortion guitar pedal they were about to use.
Their debut single was the gritty and poppy “XX Sex”, with shockingly direct feminist lyrics about exploitation and sexism in the media. They followed up with a ridiculous and silly summer single with labelmates The Nightingales and alternative comedian Ted Chippington with “Rockin’ with Rita”, and by summer’s end they were given a spot on the highly influential NME C86 compilation with “Console Me”. They prefaced their debut album that October with a jittery and bass-heavy single about unrequited love, “Love Is the Slug”, my musical introduction to them via MTV’s 120 Minutes.
Bostin’ Steve Austin (released as a self-titled album here in the US, but with the same cover) was released in December of 1986, featuring a dozen gems about the girls’ life in Birmingham–not just containing the teen heartbreak of “Love Is the Slug” and “Jackie”, it also contains the confrontational “XX Sex” and “What’s the Point” (their follow-up single released in January of 1987) and “Preconceptions”, as well as a weirdly hypnotic cover of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky”. The quality of the music here is surprisingly tight, even when it hints at sounding on the verge of disintegrating into a distorted mess. Vix’s lyrics alternate between playful, angry, and emotional, and despite the simplicity of the melodies there’s a lot going on musically. The stop-start of “You Got Me”, the building tension in “Love Is the Slug” and even the 60s-girl-group pastiche of “Hollow Girl” works perfectly.
Bostin’ Steve Austin got a ridiculous amount of play on my tape players between early 1987 and mid-1989–this was the side of punk that I gravitated to, the revelation that I didn’t have to try fitting in with the in-crowd anymore. I didn’t really need to do much, of course–wear some of my college rock tee-shirts, my grandfather’s green trenchcoat, and let my hair grow out of its quintessentially 80s spiky ‘do (but not to the point of longhaired metaldom), and start writing music reviews for albums hardly anyone else in my school listened to.
Fuzzbox disappeared for a short while, and would reappear in early 1989 with a completely new and unexpected look and sound. I admit I wasn’t entirely sure how to approach it at first, having twitched and thought “oh god, they’ve become Jem and the Holograms.” But there was something about it…something about the slick late 80s production, the chart-ready poppiness, that called to me. I began to realize that this was the forbidden candy for me as a fan of college rock, the ultimate test: do I dare admit that, after labeling myself an alternative music nerd and a nonconformist, I actually enjoyed this admittedly catchy music?
Gone was the thrift shop fashion as well, replaced by glitz and glamour. The fuzziness of their sound was also gone, replaced by shiny synthesizers and sequencers. They now had an outsider as a cowriter of songs in the form of session musician/producer Liam Sternberg. And yet…
…and yet, there was something about this new album, Big Bang, that I just could not give it up. I was older and now in college, and yet the music hinted at the readymade poppiness of 80s Top 40, the kind that was throwaway and yet catchy and likable at the same time. The Brummie humor was still there, hiding in the lyrics of lead single “International Rescue”, a loving ode to the Gerry Anderson tv classic Thunderbirds (and, in the video, a humorous nod to Jane Fonda’s Barbarella as well, featuring Adrian Edmonson from The Young Ones as an evil scientist).
Big Bang kicked off with the irresistibly poppy “Pink Sunshine” (and also released as the second single) and my immediate reaction was to wonder where the hell my punk goddesses had gone off to…but I soon understood what they were doing. This wasn’t about rebelling, not anymore. It was about being an adult now, having gotten over the teenage growing pains. These were the Brummie girls stuck in their jobs, dealing with the drudgery of the real world and letting it all loose at the end of the working week.
There’s a lot of flirting and sexiness going on with this album, and that’s part of what makes it so irresistible. There’s the rocking sci-fi of “Fast Forward Futurama”, the heartbreak of “Self!” (featuring the guitar work of none other than Queen’s Brian May!), and the gorgeous dancefloor bliss of “Versatile for Discos and Parties” (quite possibly my favorite track off the album). There’s even a brilliant cover of Yoko Ono’s “Walking on Thin Ice”, retaining the song’s mystique but giving it additional emotional beauty. The album ends on a very somber yet lovely note with a track called “Beauty”, which sounds like nothing else they’ve ever recorded.
I realized that Big Bang‘s shameless pop wasn’t shameless at all — it was a loving tribute to the dance pop of the decade, one that was about to come to a close. The sound of 80s pop would age, and often not for the best, but when it was done right, it was still fun to listen to. A few years later, once I discovered anime movies and series from the 80s and 90s such as Urusei Yatsura and Silent Möbius and later to the Gall Force series and Sailor Moon, I began to realize that, thanks to Big Bang, I now had begun a long-lasting love affair with JPop. I began seeing the album as an unintended but spot-on paean to the J-Pop so prevalent in the credits and montages in anime, and that made me love the album even more. It’s pure pop, but it’s still irresistibly fun.
In 1990 they would release a final single, “Your Loss My Gain”, written for a never-realized third album, and while it seemed they were progressing in a more mature pop direction, they soon split up. They all went their separate ways. Only Vix remained in the music industry, recording under various band names including Vix n’ the Kix. Three compilations would surface a bit over a decade later: two albums of demos and outtakes called Fuzz and Nonsense and Rules & Regulations to Pink Sunshine: The Fuzzbox Story, and a greatest hits collection amusingly titled Look at the Hits on That (a very Fuzzbox-worthy pun title). And in 2010, Vix, Maggie and Jo reunited with the help of Vix’s backing band for a one-off single, a cover of M’s classic track “Pop Muzik”. Sadly, Jo would pass away from a cancer-related illness in 2012, but a year later, Vix decided it was time to rerelease the band’s 80s discography. Bostin’ Steve Austin would finally have its debut on compact disc, and Big Bang would contain all the remaining 80s tracks, including the “Your Loss My Gain” single.
But there’s more!Since I first posted this, Vix and Maggie have returned to music under the Fuzzbox name and have dropped a few new singles over the last few years! In 2016 they released a new single called “Let’s Go Supernova”, and in 2018 they crowdfunded another single, fittingly called “WGAF…AWGUI!!”. In 2019 they released a video-only single called “Say Hello” for a local Birmingham project. And they will soon be releasing a box set called We’ve Got a Box Set and We’re Gonna Use It!!. It certainly is great to see them still going strong, still irreverent and still full of poppy goodness.
We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It!! is a band that influenced not just my listening habits but my way of life when I was growing up in the late 80s; it was a refreshing view of punk-as-freedom rather than punk-as-anger, and helped me realize that the music I listen to, then and now. My tastes still lean towards the alternative, but I’m not above the shamelessly pop, especially if it’s done well. In relistening to Bostin Steve Austin I now hear a lot of the intelligence and fearlessness in the lyrics, which makes me appreciate it all the more. And as an added bonus, they’re there if all I want is some great and fun music to listen to.
The mini-album is thirty years old as of this past June. It was one of my favorites to listen to during that summer and right into my freshman year in college. Gore has always been one of my favorite songwriters, as he certainly knows how to write an absolutely gorgeous ballad like “Somebody” and a brilliant pop gem like “Enjoy the Silence”. This record popped out just a few months after Depeche Mode’s live album 101 and sometimes gets overlooked, especially since it’s a set of six covers. It’s more of a curiosity than anything else, but you can definitely hear how deeply they influenced Gore’s songwriting style over the years.
So! Instead of posting the Martin Gore versions, I thought I’d so something I’ve been wanting to do for years: listen to the originals in this running order! Enjoy!
Track 1: “Compulsion”, originally by Joe Crow. I’d never heard this version until a few months later when someone on WZBC (Boston College’s station) played it. It’s a good example of the brittle and sparse post-punk synthwave from the early 80s.
Track 2: “In a Manner of Speaking”, originally by Tuxedomoon. This is one of those bands I’d heard so much about (thanks in part to the Trouser Press Record Guide and plenty of music journalists) but never heard at all until years later, because they were just so damned hard to find!
Track 3: “Smile in the Crowd”, originally by The Durutti Column. One of Factory’s first signings, they didn’t translate at all here in the States unlike their label mates Joy Division/New Order. Essentially a one-man-band of Vini Reilly (plus whoever happens to be around to help), his output is surprisingly lengthy, and he’s still putting out music years later.
Track 4: “Gone”, originally by The Comsat Angels. Now this band I knew about (they were called “The CS Angels” in the US) and I really liked their Chasing Shadows record from a few years previous. Sadly it took me forever to get around to getting the rest of their discography! They’re a great band worth checking out.
Track 5: “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth”, originally by Sparks. An American band that ended up being so much more popular in the UK, they nonetheless had a dedicated following here. They’re kind of weird and quirky, but they write such amazing songs! Yet another absurdly prolific band.
Track 6: “Motherless Child”, traditional. It’s not known which version Martin Gore was inspired by, if any, but his version seems closest to the slow gospel version of The Les Humphries Singers and Liz Mitchell.
REM’s first release for their freshly-inked deal with Warner Bros Records, having moved on from their indie years with IRS, usually gets passed over due to the albums surrounding it: 1987’s Document features two of their biggest commercial hits, “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)”, and 1991’s Out of Time features “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People”. What does 1988’s Green have, though? It’s a bit disjointed (on purpose), it’s a shift away from their classic pastoral folk sound (on purpose), and even its lyrics are less obscure and more understandable (again, on purpose). But it’s a hell of a fine album with some absolutely stunning and gorgeous tunes from start to finish.
REM has always worn their politics on their sleeves (this particular album contains a recurring theme of environmentalism), and in the release of Green was actually timed to coincide with the 1988 Presidential election with a brilliant promo postcard sent to record stores and radio stations:
While the ’88 election may not have finished the way they’d hoped, that didn’t stop them from continuing to use their voice for progressive reasons. Though this particular album may not be as overtly political as some of their previous releases, it certainly did bring issues to light by revising how they wrote their music. Singer Michael Stipe had requested the band “not write any more REM-type songs” in order to change their style.
As was becoming habit, the album kicks off with a lively, upbeat pop song, literally called “Pop Song ’89”, welcoming the listener to tune in and have a bit of fun. The video for the single (released in May 1989 and directed by Stipe himself) is goofy fun, featuring four topless dancers — including himself. When MTV asked to censor the video for airplay, he cheekily responded by providing an edit with black bars on all four bodies.
It’s quickly followed by another uptempo rocker, “Get Up”, which seems to actually be about asking someone to get up and out of bed. [Wikipedia states that in the late 90s, Stipe told an audience that this is indeed the case and was about bassist Mike Mills, who had been oversleeping during the sessions.] It became the fourth single from the album, and while it didn’t dent the charts, the video did start the career of one CalArts student named Eric Darnell, who went on to be a successful director of several CGI-animated movies like Antz and Madagascar.
Next up is a change of pace, hinting both at their earlier folk sound and later mandolin-heavy sound, with “You Are the Everything”. It’s a simple love song, but it’s a gorgeous one, and one that I’m pretty sure I used on a mix-tape to my then-girlfriend some months later.
Returning to the upbeat pop sound, they return with the fun and goofy “Stand”, right up there with “Can’t Get There from Here” as proof that the band definitely has a sense of humor. It’s such a chipper song that it’s hard to take seriously — even Stipe cracks himself up at the end of the video. This would be the second single from the record, and still gets airplay to this day.
It’s followed up, however, by a one-two punch of darker, more somber songs to finish up the first side of the record, with “World Leader Pretend” and “The Wrong Child” — both songs that at first listen seem to be about other people, but in actuality are about the narrator. One focuses on the inner turmoil of breaking down self-imposed barriers, while the other focuses on the outer turmoil of social acceptance. Both are about the strength needed to change and accept the self despite its physical and emotional obstacles.
Side Two kicks off with one of my favorite REM songs and the most overtly political song off the album, “Orange Crush”, and the album’s first single. It’s powerful and relentless in its energy, even during the breakdown halfway through. It has a deliberately mixed message, seeming to be pro-military while consistently reminding us of its horrors (the title refers to Agent Orange, used as herbicidal warfare in Vietnam).
It’s followed up by another song that uses this deceptive messaging to great effect: the positive and upbeat “Turn You Inside-Out” may sound like a fun rocker of a track, but its lyrics barely contain its bile. Its message seems to be “I could make your life really fucking miserable right now, but I’m going to be the better man instead.” During a stop on their subsequent tour, Stipe would dedicate this song to Exxon, whose Valdez oil tanker had struck the Alaskan coastline and spilled thousands of gallons of oil.
The record comes to a close with three deep tracks that have their own special charm, starting with “Hairshirt”, with its tender message of remaining human in the most adverse of situations. [This seems to be about Stipe’s methods of dealing with fame and privacy; he would later have a conversation with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke about this very thing, inspiring Yorke to write “How to Disappear Completely”.]
It’s followed up with “I Remember California”, a surprisingly post-apocalyptic tale of a west coast decimated by rising oceans and climate change. It’s haunting in that it’s not so much about the destruction (or even the destructive powers), but the sadness about What Used to Be, through the eyes of someone who can no longer return.
The record ends on an unexpectedly high and positive note with an upbeat untitled song (officially called “Untitled Eleventh Track” on some discographies) where, at the end of the day, despite its struggles and frustrations, we are all here for each other. [It’s been said that drummer Bill Berry thought the drum pattern for this song was so stupid he refused to play it; guitarist Peter Buck fills in instead.] The song does seem a bit like an afterthought or an epilogue, but it does help bookend the album quite nicely.
I remember listening to this record a hell of a lot during my senior year in high school. I also remember quoting many of its lyrics on the blackboard in my first period Humanities class (a friend and I often wrote a ‘quote for the day’ before class started, and the teacher didn’t seem to mind at all). I would see them on tour in early April 1989, with Indigo Girls opening up — thus introducing me to yet another fantastic and long-loved band. The album has always stayed with me over the years as their most accessible and enjoyable from start to finish. It pretty much cemented my love for the band. It’s not their most popular, but for me it’s their most solid and most adventurous work.
Gloria Vanderbit’s passing yesterday got me thinking about the classic Robert Hazard one-hit-wonder “Escalator of Life” that came out in 1982. It was one of those odd new-wavey hits that didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense lyrically (or in this case, took a metaphor and stretched it to its breaking point), but it was certainly one hell of a cool song at the time.
I often talk about the late 80s here at Walk in Silence, but I don’t think I give nearly enough love to the early 80s, which were just as influential to me as a kid. I listened to just as much radio and watched as much MTV then as I did later on, and my tastes were just as varied. I could be listening to the hard rock of WAAF in the morning as I got ready for school, but I could be listening to the classic rock of WAQY on the weekend, and watching the then-freeform stylings of early era MTV. I liked A Flock of Seagulls and Duran Duran and Pat Benatar just as much as I liked Led Zep, Eagles, and that little quirky southern band WAQY liked called REM.
As commercial as some of these stations and channels were, they weren’t averse to playing the occasional obscurity like The Stranglers’ “Golden Brown” or Yello’s “The Evening’s Young”. They’d sneak in gems like The Jam’s “Town Called Malice” or Bow Wow Wow’s “Baby Oh No”. They were quirky but had crossover potential.
I remember a lot of these obscurities — the ones you remember from the era that don’t show up on those Just Can’t Get Enough compilations or those 80s Retro internet stations — because my mixtape-making actually started around this time, in late 1982. I’d made quasi-mixtapes before then, of course..mainly dubbing songs off the radio and from MTV (holding our cassette recorder close to the tv speaker, of course), but they didn’t contain that many songs. It wasn’t until November 1982 that I’d gathered a handful of used blank tapes and went wild. This first collection lasted six tapes and contained everything from A Flock of Seagulls to Led Zeppelin to Donnie Iris to Chilliwack to Thomas Dolby. It’s quite a manic and haphazard mix, created over the length of maybe two or three months.
I also started cataloging my mixtapes around then, first on index cards I would stick to the tapes with rubber bands, then a few years later with a steno notebook. Most all of those early tapes are long gone, having either gotten broken or tangled, taped over by something more important, or just faded back into white noise. But I kept these catalogs — mainly because I was a packrat — and much, much later (in 2007 or so) I started recreating them digitally using copied mp3s.
It’s kind of wild to see these mixtape track lists so many decades later; on the one hand, I’m not at all surprised that I was that obsessed over pop and rock music by the time I was twelve. There was just so much more out there coming out, and I just wanted to hear all of it! Sure, I had my questionable selections, but we all did around then. We’d gone from AM radio to the commercial FM radio to early MTV within the span of maybe four or five years. Some of us were just going to ride that particular avalanche and have fun while it happened.
Hello and welcome to another episode of Thirty Years On! At this point in time I’m winding down the remaining weeks of my high school years…all the term papers handed in and graded, all final exams about to be taken, and future plans made. I’ve gone to an open house at Emerson College, which I’ll be attending that September. The biggest change at this time is that I’m going out with a lovely girl introduced to me by a mutual friend, which changes my emotional outlook considerably at the time. [Decades after our split, we’re still friends and talk online occasionally, by the way.] I’m focusing more on my poetry and lyrics than my novels, and in hindsight I realize that helped me get out of that creative rut.
I graduate in early May. My old friends from the year before have just come home from college temporarily and take me out for a celebratory dinner. I’m thrilled to spend more time with them again. I’m prepping myself for a new life in a new city. Now all I have to do is survive a few more months in my hometown. The waiting drives me absolutely bonkers, and there’s also the fact that I’ll have a newly-minted relationship turning into a long-distance one pretty soon. It’ll be a hell of a tough balance.
The Cure, “Lullaby” single, released in the UK on 4 April 1989. After waiting nearly a year for new music from one of my all-time favorite bands at the time, I was utterly blown away by their new sound. It wasn’t the upbeat alternarock of their last few albums, that was for sure. I’d first heard it on 120 Minutes and then on WAMH and I was hooked. I picked this twelve-inch up at Main Street Music down in Northampton (roadtrip with Chris, natch). I especially enjoyed the bizarre throwaway b-side “Babble” with its crying-baby samples and “shut up shut up” lyrics.
Xymox, Twist of Shadows, released 10 April 1989. I’d been a fan of this band since hearing their fantastic “Muscoviet Mosquito” on the 4AD compilation Lonely Is an Eyesore. By this time they’d moved away from their colder goth sound and embraced a more snythpoppy mood that fit them quite well. This is an excellent album that combines rich moods and dance beats without sounding soulless. Highly recommended; they just released an expanded remaster of this earlier this year!
Pixies, Doolittle, released 17 April 1989. There was always cause for celebration for a new Pixies record in Massachusetts, especially out yonder in the Pioneer Valley, and this one fast became a favorite of pretty much everyone. While less ear-splitting than Surfer Rosa, it still provided quite a few memorable tracks that would become fan favorites for years to come.
The Cure, “Fascination Street” single, released in the US on 18 April 1989. The lead-off single for this side of the pond was a much stronger — and angrier — track that held a power I hadn’t heard from the band probably since their Pornography album. If their upcoming record was going to be as damn good as their two singles, then it was gong to be pretty friggin’ amazing.
Wire, It’s Beginning to and Back Again, released May 1989. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this particular record, on the other hand. Wire had been a huge favorite of mine the year previous, but instead of a new album with new and intriguing music, they’d gone in a slightly different direction; this was a record borne out of sound experimentation and live recording. Half the tracks were reinterpretations of songs from their last two albums and singles, with maybe one or two new songs added. (And the second new single, “In Vivo”, only available on cd. Because of this I never got around to hearing it for another year or so.) In retrospect it is an interesting record, but it’s not exactly a must-have unless you’re a dedicated fan.
The Cure, Disintegration, released 2 May 1989. “This music has been mixed to be played loud so TURN IT UP.” So says the liner notes on the Cure’s eighth and by far most popular and most-loved record. And turn it up I did, when I bought it on cassette the week it came out. From the glorious crash and downpour of synth strings on the opener “Plainsong” to the sad goodbye of a slightly out of tune melodica on the closer “Untitled”, it is so aurally immersive it’s almost impossible not to be drawn in by its beauty. It’s a completely perfect album on so many levels.
Bob Mould, Workbook, released 2 May 1989. Almost completely obscured by the above, Mould’s debut solo album, recorded after (and in some ways in response to) his acrimonious split from Husker Du, is a gorgeous masterpiece itself. He’d wanted to record an album that was the antithesis of the noisy punk he’d been known for, to prove he could write solid songs that were more melodic and acoustic. It as a smashing success for both critics and fans, paving the way for a successful long term career.
The Godfathers, More Songs About Love and Hate, released 9 May 1989. These British punkers followed up their brilliant Birth School Work Death with a record that leaned less on their psych-rock origins and more on their other influences, including Johnny Cash. There’s a fun raucousness on this record and doesn’t take itself entirely seriously sometimes, but it’s a solid album.
Tin Machine, Tin Machine, released 23 May 1989. This record divided Bowie fans something fierce when it came out. Some (like myself) thought it was an excellent about-face from the sterile pop-rock he’d been attempting for most of the 80s; some thought he was an old man past his prime trying to be relevant by playing hard rock out of his league; some had no idea what to make of it and ignored it completely. It’s full of anger, humor, and relentless power, and Bowie pulled it off brilliantly.
Public Image Ltd, 9, released 30 May 1989. This was a slow burner for me; while it had the groove and melody of 1987’s Happy? (which was a big favorite of mine), it also felt a little bit like a retread of that album, only with slightly longer songs and not nearly as much humor. Over the years I’ve come to enjoy it, however. It still feels a little overlong, but it’s still solid.
Of course, now that I’ve revived the “___Years On” series, I’m half tempted to do some more reviews of previous years, especially the 1985-1987 era when post-punk started to sneak its way into the US mainstream, little by little, paving the way for the classic alternative rock albums and singles we all know and love.
Not to mention that I’m half-tempted to revive the Walk in Silence book project, which I’d put on the back burner quite some time ago.
Over the course of the last few months, I’ve been thinking of whether or not to follow up on this series. It’s hard to follow up on what I personally consider one of the best years for alternative rock in the 80s in terms of musicianship, quality, consistency and creativity. On a more personal note, it’s also hard to follow up having a positive and stellar year when nearly your entire circle of friends has left for greener college pastures. Regardless, I did my damnedest to remain as positive as I could; I still had the other friends in my year and younger.
In retrospect this makes me sound rather shallow, and I suppose it does in a way. My connection to the just-graduated gang had been a deep and close one that I hadn’t had previously, and I suppose their moving on affected me more than I’d expected. I suddenly found myself going from ‘part of the gang’ to flying solo (or almost solo), and it took me a long time to get used to that.
Regardless, I still had college radio and 120 Minutes to fall back on. Plus, I was on the final circuit towards the end of my high school career, and it was time for me to find myself and shine somehow.
The Darling Buds, Pop Said…, released January 1989. If there’s anything I noticed about 1989, is that it seemed to have a more pop sheen to it. Not in the ridiculous plastic way that permeated the mid-80s pop scene, but in a fun, free-for-all way. This was thanks to multiple scenes in the UK kicking off the party culture that soon became known as Britpop. The Buds, coming from South Wales, brought in a sparkly indie-pop sound that caught the ears of many a fan.
Love and Rockets, “Motorcycle”/”I Feel Speed” single, released 3 January 1989. Meanwhile, the trio once known for its dreamy psychedelic indie rock over the last four years suddenly changed pace and delivered a growling punch of raucous surf rock about singer Daniel Ash’s love of motorcycles. The b-side “I Feel Speed” is a gorgeous dreamlike interpretation of the song done almost entirely on David J’s bass.
Throwing Muses, Hunkpapa, released 23 January 1989. The last album featuring bassist Leslie Langston, this outing was much more pop-oriented than their previous records, providing a college radio favorite with “Dizzy”.
New Order, Technique, released 30 January 1989. While not as brilliant as Low Life or Brotherhood, it’s nonetheless a solid album featuring some of their best hybrid sound of synth and guitar. It’s also quite melodic compared to some of their earlier records.
Morrissey, “The Last of the Famous International Playboys” single, released 31 January 1989. An absurd yet catchy ode to the Reggie and Ronnie Kray, London’s most famous (and infamous) mobsters of current history. It was the first of numerous non-album songs Morrissey would drop over the course of the next decade. Also a song and video that surprised many: it features three other ex-Smiths (Andy Rourke on bass, Mike Joyce on drums, and tour guitarist Craig Gannon), briefly firing up rumors of a sort-of Smiths reunion.
The Replacements, Don’t Tell a Soul, released 7 February 1989. Paul Westerberg and Co followed up 1987’s fantastic Pleased to Meet Me with an album that sounds like maybe they sobered up a titch and started writing more solidly and melodically. They’re older and perhaps a bit wiser at this point.
Fine Young Cannibals, The Raw and the Cooked, released 20 February 1989. The trio’s second (and so far final) album was a big hit across the board, both on pop and modern rock charts, thanks to its lead-off single “She Drives Me Crazy”. It also had quite a memorable video (choreographed and directed by Phillippe Decouflé, whose only other music video was the equally memorable “True Faith” for New Order).
XTC, Oranges and Lemons, released 27 February 1989. Perhaps partly inspired by their side project The Dukes of Stratosphear, whose records were a straight-up 60s psychedelic rock pastiche, this record blended those psych tendencies with lovely pastoral sounds and catchy pop tunes.
Indigo Girls, Indigo Girls, released 28 February 1989. Their second album (and first for a major label) was a stellar folk-rock record that gained them a huge following, and major airplay on both college and commercial stations with their hit “Closer to Fine.” It’s an amazing album from start to finish and a must for anyone’s collection.
Robyn Hitchcock, Queen Elvis, released March 1989. His follow-up to the fan favorite Globe of Frogs — and named after one of his songs that would appear on 1990’s solo record Eye — is full of beautiful and introspective songs, yet still peppered with his trademark eclectic wit. It’s my personal favorite of his 80s output.
De La Soul, Three Feet High and Rising, released 3 March 1989. Goofy, fun, and relentlessly creative, it’s a blast to listen to with its positivity and humor. Thirty years later and they’re still going strong with new records and high-profile appearances, including Gorillaz’s ace track “Feel Good Inc.”
Depeche Mode, 101, released 11 March 1989. Their first live album is a two-record sprawl of their biggest recorded at the Pasadena Rose Bowl (the 101st and last show on a their Music for the Masses Tour with Erasure and Wire). While the songs may not be all that different from their studio versions, they deliver a great show nonetheless.
The Stone Roses, The Stone Roses, released 13 March 1989. Meanwhile, the long-simmering sound of Manchester — brought to the fore previously by The Smiths and New Order, among numerous others — finally exploded internationally with a guitar-heavy rock dance beat that blew everyone away and inspired and influenced so many others for years to come and laid the ground for the classic 90s Britpop sound.
Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Dress for Excess, released 31 March 1989 (US). Okay, so perhaps this record didn’t inspire or influence anyone at all, but it’s still a fun album. It’s not as blissfully chaotic as 1986’s Flaunt It, but in the process they sound so much more professional, perhaps a bit more serious as a band. Lead single “Success” was a deliberate plan in that direction, hiring hit UK producers Stock Aitken Waterman to make their sound as slick as possible. Bonus points for writing and recording an absolutely gorgeous album closer in the form of the dystopian ballad “Is This the Future?”, still one of my all-time favorite tracks of theirs.
Well here we are, on the back end of one of my favorite years ever. Despite the emotional ups and downs I dealt with, it was a highly creative one for me, and started me on the long road of becoming a more serious writer. My circle of college friends returned for a brief holiday break and we met up a few times before it was time to return for spring semester of 1989.
The brief meet-ups we had were just what I needed to get myself back on track emotionally and creatively. It would still be a sad parting, but at the same time I had to remind myself that I was only a few months shy of escaping my small town as well.
Various Artists, Winter Warnerland, released early December. The Warner Bros distribution team kicked this fine and fun double album out to radio stations across the land, and ended up in my vinyl collection later on. Its quirky lineup includes Danelle Dax, Los Lobos, Hugo Largo, Throwing Muses and REM alongside more lighter fare like Gardner Cole, PM, Honeymoon Suite and Peter Cetera. It also features a few holiday cheer bumpers from bands and singers such as ZZ Top, Randy Travis, Nelson Wilbury (aka George Harrison), and, weirdly enough, multiple bumpers from Pee-Wee Herman. It’s worth checking out if you can find it, if for it’s kitschiness.
The Pogues, “Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah” single, released December. A stopgap single between albums, this a wonderful take-off on early 60s British pop, complete with a fantastic video riffing on European music programs like Beat Club.
The Cowboy Junkies, The Trinity Session, released 7 December. This band came out of nowhere and immediately became a critic and fan favorite with its gorgeously sparse album of tunes and covers recorded in a single day using the natural reverb of a Toronto church. While their follow-up albums may not have garnered the high praise this one received, they’ve remained active and dropped a lovely bluesy album just this year.
Compilation, Does Truth Dance? Does Truth Sing? The Singles 1988, created 27 December. My first end-of-year, multi-tape mix encapsulating my absolute favorite tracks released throughout the year. Partly inspired by the end-of-year countdowns I used to record off the radio, this one ended up being a favorite mix of mine, even though the tracks do get a bit thin by the third tape. Not bad for a first try, though! The title was snagged from a repeated line from Wire’s “A Public Place” that closes out side 2 of the first tape. I’d make more of these mixes off and on throughout the years, and by 2011 I’d made it a consistent annual event.
…and that’s it! Hope you enjoyed this series! It was certainly a fantastic year for music, a year that in my opinion was going to be hard to top. For years I held it to the highest regard and no years would ever come close, at least not until ten years later, with the HMV year of 1998…